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Inside Out

Lydia Lee | March 11, 2016 | Story Architecture

To some degree, every house is a reflection of its owner. But Nicole Vidalakis’ home in Portola Valley is an exceptionally personal project, the culmination of years of careful consideration. Designed by one of the Bay Area’s preeminent architects, Robert Swatt, the 7,200-square-foot dwelling reflects her complex tastes in design.

“I love the masculine starkness of contemporary architecture,” says Vidalakis, a psychologist. “But I also like the equivalent of feminine jewelry for the house.” Involved to an unusual extent in the home’s interior design, she selected not only the furnishings and art, but also many of the finishes and fixtures, including slabs of green onyx for the walls of one of the bathrooms and glass vitrine-like sinks from Italy.

Vidalakis had previously lived for almost a decade in San Francisco. But her plan was always to pursue a slower, more serene life in the quiet Peninsula town of Portola Valley. After investigating various sites, she honed in on a 4-acre property in the town’s exclusive Westridge neighborhood. It had the advantage of being relatively flat, and also had sweeping views that included San Francisco as well as Windy Hill Preserve, traversed by grazing cows. When she purchased the property in 2008, Vidalakis hoped to slowly renovate its rambling, 1950s ranch house. But a formidable and growing list of issues, including a roof that needed to be replaced and a swimming pool that was leaking into the house, convinced her to start afresh.

After spending two years researching and interviewing firms, Vidalakis connected with Emeryville-based Swatt Miers Architects. She appreciated Swatt’s classic modernism, wholehearted devotion to residential architecture and easygoing personality. She was particularly enamored of one of his first projects: a 1972 vacation house in Tahoe with rugged concrete pillars and vertical wood siding. “I told him, ‘I don’t want a house. I want a work of art that I can live in,’” recalls Vidalakis. She also told him of her strong dislike for stucco and drywall, another directive that gladdened the architect’s heart. “She’s a very unique, special person—like no one else I’ve ever worked with,” says Swatt.

Casting his eye over the site, Swatt conceived of a house that would step up the gentle slope and look out onto the views. He gave it a strong, monumental presence, defining its form with four “indoor-outdoor walls”—concrete walls that extend from the interior to the exterior and organize the indoor and outdoor spaces. The tallest of these walls, soaring 30 feet high, is the home’s central axis and supports three light-filled floors. Unlike many clients, Vidalakis embraced the idea of exposed concrete walls (“I told Bob I wanted it to look like a bank,” she says). The walls that are not concrete are predominantly floor-to-ceiling glass.

The house’s most distinctive architectural element is a wall of windows that combines the warmth of mahogany with a sharp, contemporary grid. No fewer than 57 casement windows, designed to shield the south side of the house from the sun, turn the adjacent stairwell into a dramatic gallery of light and shadow.

The number of finishes was kept to a minimum; the exterior siding and ceilings are all mahogany. The ground floor is covered in travertine, which continues through to the courtyard outside. And the engineered quartz on the kitchen countertops appears throughout the house, including the floor of the main powder room. “The house is very elemental—it’s so simple in its shape and materials,” says Swatt. “When you see it in its setting, I wanted it to look inevitable.”

The main level is essentially one large room, combining living, dining and kitchen in a lofty 19-foot-high space. Glass walls on facing sides, looking out to the pool on the north and a large courtyard on the south, make the home feel even more expansive. Vidalakis furnished it with striking outdoor pieces that double as sculpture, so the living room looks like an art gallery when unoccupied. The seating is a custom Astral bench from Thomas Moser, which faces a pink metal Richard Schultz Wing chair. The aluminum figures are mannequins from the 1970s, made for I. Magnin department store.

To the left of the front door is a separate wing containing a home office, the garage and guest quarters. On the second floor is the master bedroom, Vidalakis’ 5-year-old daughter Philomena’s bedroom, and a family room on a mezzanine that overlooks the great room below. The third floor is devoted to a guest room and an impressive set of outdoor terraces for enjoying the views.

The house carefully reflects how Vidalakis likes to live. Since she enjoys cooking, she asked Swatt to orient the home accordingly. When she stands at the stove, the view is of the pool, designed with negative edges so it looks like a minimalist water feature, with San Francisco just visible in the far distance. The kitchen is open, but a 4-foot-high wall around it ensures that everything is hidden from view. “I’m supermessy,” says Vidalakis, “but if everything looks tidy, the house is peaceful.”

Ever self-aware, Vidalakis credits Swatt with tempering her design exuberance and tendency to overthink things with the restraint and wisdom attained after so many decades of experience. And it was Swatt who, after Vidalakis asked for a shade structure by the pool, came up with an eye-popping screen in bright blue. The curvaceous sculpture fulfills its function and contrasts beautifully with the rigorous planes of the house. When asked what it was like to design the house, Swatt says: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley

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